Why you should care
Because controversies — and politics — are taking their toll on America’s most popular sport.
It remains a $14 billion business with a central space in American life, but temblors of controversy have shaken the National Football League in recent years. This season, serious cracks have appeared in its foundation as it became the focus of divisive racial politics. Players’ silent demonstrations during the national anthem to protest the mistreatment of Blacks by law enforcement surged after President Donald Trump described a protesting player as a “son of a bitch.” Meanwhile, no team has hired protest-instigating quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Amid a hot-take fest about patriotism, people on both sides of the aisle have called for a boycott of the NFL. An exclusive SurveyMonkey and OZY poll reveals that the movement has caught on:
33 percent of football fans said they purposefully stopped watching or attending NFL games this season.
Those who sat out had multiple motivations, but the most common one: “in support of Donald Trump,” a reason given by 32 percent of surveyed boycotters. Another 22 percent said they stopped watching or attending in solidarity with players kneeling during the anthem, 13 percent had no interest in the teams playing, 12 percent acted in solidarity with Kaepernick, 11 percent were troubled by the devastating long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries on players and 8 percent said the games were boring. Another 46 percent chose “other” as their reason for boycotting, with replies specifying the national anthem, the American flag and opposing players’ kneeling. (Respondents were allowed to give more than one reason for boycotting.)
This SurveyMonkey/OZY online survey was conducted Dec. 8–11 among a national sample of 1,726 adults ages 18 and older, including 1,223 people who said they are football fans or watch the Super Bowl. Respondents were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data has been weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect the demographic composition of the United States. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The full results can be found here, and cross-tabs can be viewed here.
Television cameras have captured abysmal in-game turnout in several stadiums.
The protests had a sharp gender split. Men were more likely than women to boycott the NFL overall (39 percent to 26 percent) and more likely to do it to back Trump (35 percent to 25 percent), while women were more likely to opt out in solidarity with kneeling players (30 percent to 17 percent).
OZY and SurveyMonkey also probed views about taxpayer-funded stadiums, an issue that helped spark two recent franchise moves. When taxpayers would not help foot the bill for new football palaces in St. Louis and San Diego, both the Rams and the Chargers, respectively, departed for Los Angeles. People across the country side with St. Louis and San Diego: 70 percent of respondents oppose taxpayer subsidies for stadiums, including 46 percent who strongly oppose them. Only 6 percent strongly support subsidies. But support rises among superfans: 43 percent of those who identify as big football fans back publicly financed stadiums.
On television the NFL has slipped, but not dramatically. Jon Lewis, founder and editor of the website Sports Media Watch, says the ratings are generally mediocre, and the highs are not as high as in recent years. “These are not necessarily bad ratings,” Lewis says. “I haven’t seen any numbers that would say, ‘Oh, my goodness, the NFL is free-falling.’” While Lewis says the league’s top sports competitors, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, had a strong fall, nonsports ratings are plunging in the age of Netflix and cord cutting. NFL games still cram the roster of the most-watched TV programs each week — a critical metric for advertisers.
Paid attendance has been down slightly — the Sports Business Journal reported a 2.5 percent decline through Week 12 — but television cameras have captured abysmal in-game turnout in several stadiums, an indication that many presold season tickets are going unused.
The effect of the fan boycott might be more a softening than a cratering of support. Consider the case of Chip Lake, who lives outside Atlanta. He’s still an NFL fan and fantasy football obsessive. But for the first time in about 15 years, he didn’t attend a Falcons game. “I didn’t want to spend my money in a stadium and watch people disrespect the national anthem,” Lake says. “I don’t know consciously that I sat down before Week 1 and said, ‘I’m boycotting the Atlanta Falcons’ … I just didn’t make it a priority to go.”